Stories and Music for a Christ-haunted People

Last year I heard an interview with the fine British actor, Micheal Sheen, about the Passion Play, “The Gospel of Us” in which he played the Christ figure, “The Teacher” in venues around Port Talbot, a steel town in south Wales and Sheen’s hometown, at Easter 2012. “We are a Christ-haunted people,” he said before explaining that he did not regard himself as a practicing Christian. The play was filmed by Dave McKean and is available on all the usual media if you wish to watch it. I intend to do so myself this year.

It was that phrase “A Christ-haunted people” that came to mind as I began to think about this week’s posting about The Music of the Ainur that I promised last week. I first began to think about this on Christmas Night. The days up to and including Christmas Day are a particularly intense time of the year for me as a Christian minister. Unlike Sheen I am a “practicing” Christian and I am especially visible as such as I attend school nativity plays, carol services of many kinds and with many communities and then the great services of Holy Communion at midnight on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. In one school carol service I joined the queue trying to get into the church declaring to those around me that I wanted the novel experience of having to queue to get into church. I promise you that I said it with a happy smile on my face and folk smiled back at me too.

In recent years I have become increasingly drawn to the Christ-haunted who are not regular worshippers. I feel greatly privileged to be with people who choose to get married in church, or to baptise their child, or to seek a Christian funeral for the person they have lost. In Britain the month of November has become a new holy month as the remembering of our war dead has grown in significance in recent years. The poppy installation in which a ceramic poppy was placed in the moat to represent each of those who died in the First World War at The Tower of London was visited by over a million people, a similar number to those from Britain who perished in that war. Two of my great uncles were among that number and I intend to visit their graves in military cemeteries on The Western Front. This need to remember affects me too.

And then there is Christmas…

When Charles Dickens wrote a life of Christ he produced one of the dullest things he ever wrote and I have no doubt it pleased church leaders and pious parents who surely dutifully read it to their children and so infected them with the safe and unthreatening belief that piety and dullness belong together!  “A Christmas Carol”, on the other hand, is a thrilling tale and has entered the mythology of the English speaking world. That is why I have re-blogged Sarah Waters’ excellent piece that I hope you will read alongside this.

Increasingly I am sure that the Music of the Ainur can be heard anywhere if we have but ears to hear it. When I first tried to write this I thought I would be talking about the music of great composers but realise now that I cannot do this. I cannot reduce music to a narrative, even the narrative of the great Christ-story. I must trust music to lead me on although I could produce a playlist of music that has pointed me towards the great music recently. Perhaps you would like to do the same. Victoria Barlow writes movingly about this in a comment on last week’s blog if you would like to read more on this. I do encourage you to do so.

I offer Charles Dickens to you as an example of a great story-teller whose work points us towards the great story at many points and most surely in his tale of the redemption of the miser, Scrooge. I would love to hear about your examples. And I would like to add at the end of this that I would include Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of the great examples of the modern age.

4 thoughts on “Stories and Music for a Christ-haunted People

  1. I find that choral music, particular small acapella ensembles (like Anonymous 4, for example) are particularly moving. I like how the mixture of individual, unique human voices, and the self-effacing nature of harmony play together as both opposites and companions.

  2. Thank you so much for leaving a comment, Michelle. I feel quite dissatisfied by what I have written here. I am quite confident writing about the way in which English Literature seems to be “Christ-haunted” to use Michael Sheen’s words but I feel much less confident in speaking about music. My older daughter is currently studying for a degree in Music and has become fascinated by the relationship between music and philosophy after writing an essay on Wagner last year and his fascination with the work of Schopenhauer. For Wagner the relationship between his work & philosophy is explicit but I wonder if that is because he sought to unite text and music? What link could be made if the text were to be taken away? She is currently writing an essay on Scriabin but although Scriabin’s music is good his attempts to link it to an esoteric philosophy are bizarre!
    I am drawn to what you write about harmony. In recent years I have built a relationship with a fine choir who normally sing acapella and am deeply moved in the way you describe. Their director curates a text and music event in early December each year in which I participate as a reader. I look forward to it each year. But although the music moves me it is the text that gives me food for reflection in the weeks following the event as it has this year once again.
    Please don’t feel obliged to do so but I would be interested in your reflections as a student of philosophy on this.

  3. I am not qualified to talk about philosophy, or even really about music, but thank you for directing my thoughts to this path! I, too, struggle with this a little. I would like to offer my thoughts – you so often come back with a response that challenges me to think again! Thank you for that gift!

    It interests me that you say the text provokes more reflection than the music. I wonder if this is partly because text.. Words… Are our most used language. We identify with expressing ourself in words. We somehow feel we ought to – as I’m trying to here! A wordless cry, or a song without words, is often described as an “inability” to put into words. We struggle to fit our largest and deepest concepts into words – poetry is possibly our best attempt, and therefore often what provokes thought – what is “in the gaps” in poetry is often most powerful. My personal feeling here is that music is yet another language,
    connecting more directly with the vastness of meaning. When we experience or compose music, we grasp at the edges of this communication, as a toddler struggling to describe something in words. Sometimes we even connect more deeply. The trouble is, it’s so much more direct, and we are so “unfluent”, that it is much harder to mull over what we have experienced musically and to revisit it in the halls of our memory – it fades like a dream and we are left with the words!

    However, music has a way of inserting itself into our minds perhaps without us realising. Does the music we experience with a text colour our understanding and thought trains about that text? I believe so. Snatches of music may fill your head at times, provoked by incidents that connect deeply within us – beauty or joy or memory or tragedy. And, if we are so lucky as to get to know a piece of music so intimately that we begin to speak its language, are we haunted and provoked by each little note? I know that this last week I have been puzzling over the meaning of a particular piece I am playing – there are twists and turns of melody and piquancies of harmony where I feel the meaning is just around the corner… I puzzle them in my mind, perhaps similarly to your reaction to the text in your services.

    I wonder whether, when composers succeed in setting text to music well, whether they lift the text into that realm of communication offered by wordless music… Whether a little of the vastness of what music opens to us, is somehow added to the text…

    When I experience vocal music I cannot pick out the words from the melodies and harmonies. I often read them. Even the melodies and harmonies may elude me, so I may read those too, and join what I see and hear in my mind to what I experience through sound and feeling. To me, the two (words and music) become inextricably linked. I think, once joined, they will always influence the other. I often think that vocal music is thrice blessed. The Holy Spirit moved the writer to create text, he blessed the composer with the gift of giving it wings of melody and depths of harmony, and then he blazed it with glory by smelting the two together with the craft of angels. We mortals can more easily reach for the edges of the blaze perhaps at that point.

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this, Victoria. As I wrote to Michelle Joelle, I found this a very difficult piece to write and that was unexpected. Somehow I thought that I could make the journey from music to speech without difficulty. I was wrong. I like what you say at the beginning of your comment very much.
    “I wonder if this is partly because text.. Words… Are our most used language. We identify with expressing ourself in words. We somehow feel we ought to – as I’m trying to here! A wordless cry, or a song without words, is often described as an “inability” to put into words.”
    I suspect that I fell into the trap of this facile understanding of ability and inability that gives the primacy to speech over all other forms of communication. I came across this wonderful poem by Ruth Pitter the other day(she once kept house for C.S Lewis & he admired her poetry very much indeed) in a blog that I follow https://journeytowardseaster.wordpress.com/2015/01/18/ruth-pitter-the-bridge-of-faith.
    Pitter wrote:
    “There is always a way for those who must go over:

    Always a bridge from the known to the unknown.

    When from the known the mind revolts and despairs

    There lies a way, and there must we go over.”

    Those words “a bridge from the known to the unknown” have gripped me ever since I first read them. I wonder if music helps us to make that journey if we allow it to do so.

    Finally, thank you for the doxology with which you end your comment. Praise was the right way which to end your thoughtful and beautifully expressed comment.

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